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Movie Review: Abortion: Stories Women Tell

A new 90-minute documentary about abortion, HBO’s Abortion: Stories Women Tell, demonstrates how endangered the right to abortion has become. This is not a compliment to the film, however, which plays it safe and doesn’t fundamentally inform or enlighten the audience about abortion. Granted, the title does not promise very much. But heartbreaking tales of why women choose to have an abortion, mixed with tales of women who choose to campaign and crusade against abortion, are just stories.

large_Abortion-poster-HBO-2106-1There’s no attempt to reconcile stories with facts, let alone evidence. Heck, there isn’t even an attempt to instruct the audience in what an abortion, a medical procedure which terminates the fetus, entails. Abortion is left to one’s imagination in Abortion, which is exactly what happens as bits and pieces of the procedure are referenced in disjointed fragments and, in one long diatribe, a fundamentalist Christian rails against abortion, incorrectly referring to the fetus as a “baby”, without any contrary argument. I think the filmmakers must think this is a “balanced” approach or that they mistake objectivity for refusing to take a position on anything including the facts of reality. Either that or they think the case for abortion needs no facts, which is not true. The effect is that the presumably pro-rights Abortion backfires and comes across as a movie which regards the anti-abortion and pro-rights positions as morally equivalent.

After some setup including the dubiously worded assertion that the 1973 Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion “gives” the right to women and a preface about an anti-abortion law in Missouri which drives women across the border to an abortion clinic in Illinois, the movie by director Tracy Droz Tragos sets the basic, familiar conflict. It’s the fundamentalist religious people versus the women seeking to have or provide abortion.

A documentary about women’s abortions can’t help but be moving and interesting, as lower middle, poor and middle class women report their various reasons, which are mostly financial. “I’m doing this for me,” one individual says. Another reports the HIV virus infection as a motive to abort. Someone else explains that her fetus is discovered to have a deformity which will leave it without a skull above the eyes. Several women report abusive fathers as the reason to abort. One woman says her worst decision was to have unprotected sex and adds that her best decision is to have an abortion.

That abortion is a woman’s fundamental right to control her own body is beyond dispute, but it’s never put that way in this rambling, unfocused film, which horrifyingly presents the anti-abortionist side without commentary or correction, leaving atrocious assertions left unchecked and uncorrected. One protester’s gruesome description goes on and on without the most elementary fact check. Worse, the abortion is left unexamined as a legitimate clinical procedure. The clinic’s guardians, escorts—religionists brand them “deathscorts”—and nurses and doctors are most forthright and compelling, with a mother who’s a security guard openly and with good reason expressing her thoughts on the anti-abortionists, who tell the patients and clinicians that they’re going to burn in hell and that sort of nonsense. “Let God plan parenthood,” reads another one’s t-shirt.

But these religious radicals are depicted without the slightest qualification, giving their irrational views undue credence.

When one woman finally talked about the abortion pill, I felt a sense of relief for her sake. This is because, as observed by Dr. Erin, as she’s known here in a common tactic to protect the identity of those who offer this service to patients for fear of terrorist attack and/or murder or assassination, the anti-abortionist conservatives have all but won the war against a woman’s right to abortion by thoroughly stigmatizing the procedure, leaving fewer places to get an abortion.

“People are going to die,” the doctor rightly warns, forecasting death due to de facto abortion bans—I know that fewer and fewer doctors are trained in the procedure, which I know no thanks to Abortion—and punitive laws. Abortion: Stories Women Tell lacks the narrative and thematic clarity and cohesion to let the women who choose and practice abortion tell their full stories—of marriages, fortunes and lives saved, Casey Anthony type mother-murderers averted and inalienable rights exercised—and it fails to show the truth of the right to abort a pregnancy. Worse, while the stories are involving for their seriousness, it leaves the impression that stories as such, including those told by religious fanatics, are a better measure of truth than medicine, facts and evidence.

The individual’s right to his or her own body is sacred. The exercise of this right deserves serious scrutiny and non-fictional filmmaking. Abortion regards storytelling as an end in itself and, in doing so, it sells the true story of—including a woman’s right to—abortion short.

Movie Review: Florence Foster Jenkins

Have you wanted something badly enough to be blinded by the wanting? This is the moral dilemma at the heart of Florence Foster Jenkins, the newest movie by director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena, Mrs. Henderson Presents) about a matronly woman who bucks the status quo for her own private reasons of innermost agony. The humor is as broad, the delivery as dry and the showmanship as campy and bawdy as in his previous outings.

This time, however, the woman’s life is itself more centrally at stake.

FFJ_1SHT_MAIN_fff-600x878The title character is, once again, based upon a real person. As portrayed by showy Meryl Streep (Hope Springs, The Iron Lady, Suffragette, The Giver, Into the Woods), playing an old woman as old for the first time in her long and enduring career, the title character is a haughty eccentric with an impetuous and checkered past which jeopardizes her health. Paramount’s marketing has successfully established for the audience in advance that Jenkins is an awful singer who skates along taking voice lessons and singing out of tune.

Florence Foster Jenkins dramatizes why she does that. While you’re waiting for the big moment, whatever it may be, Florence Foster Jenkins dramatizes something else, though, too; how being a failure in some endeavors can let you cash in on other, higher values.

Florence Foster Jenkins is not as sentimental as it sounds, and it’s a complicated, lush and polished Forties-in-New York-City affair which makes you laugh at the main character, double check the laughter and think twice about what the whole movie means (as Frears pictures usually do).

Opening credits play on New York’s skyline, teasing the romp to come. Decked in outrageous costumes and prancing around her marriage to Hugh Grant’s Shakespearean actor, who’s reduced to being her manager, Jenkins has good taste in music. She favors Chopin. She creates an appreciation club for Verdi. She supports her conductor friend Toscanini. But the rotund heiress, who once played piano in the White House as a child, can’t sing. That she really, really wants to sing and is oblivious to her inability makes most of the movie’s humor.

Hugh Grant shines portraying her husband, who, incidentally, really, really wants to act. He arranges an elaborate facade which becomes the film’s farcical conflict, evoking the spirit of the lighter, naughtier Mrs. Pettigrew Lives for a Day. The dreadful private shows are hilariously deceitful whatever the ethics and it’s hard to suppress laughter no matter how hard you try. Enter an expressive, young pianist (perfectly cast Simon Helberg) with an ambition to match hers and the plot deepens.

For a time, screenwriter Nicholas Martin seems to lampoon serious artists but that’s not a Frears imprint. Then, there seems to be a contest between loyalty and unchecked or unearned ambition but that’s not it, either. How then to account for a movie that holds its ardent fool in high regard? This puzzle is part of what makes Florence Foster Jenkins, neatly scored by Alexandre Desplat, engaging, if not flawless. As the young performer comes out, and how and what he comes out and into happens in gentle and suggestive ways, this Paramount picture’s theme that art in general and music in particular, from opera’s Verdi to jazz’s Louis Armstrong, inspires one to become stronger for life takes shape.

This happens in a scene at the young man’s home, a warm, lived in place of solitude where he conditions and practices with relaxed, monastic devotion. It’s a lovely scene for its bonding and it marks the transition of Florence Foster Jenkins from a snickering, snorting romp to an elegy for making real in one’s life the track that plays in one’s mind.

In an age of flickering amusements by American Idol‘s Sanjaya or William Hung, as well as more lasting, damaging fakes and frauds named Kardashian and Trump, it’s natural to laugh at what’s ridiculous. In a culture of faking, it’s harder to grasp that goodness—and a sense of benevolence gives Florence Foster Jenkins its wings—starts with honest effort, even if you fail to pull it off (and more so, in the case of Susan Boyle, if you do). Not every moment rises above what can also be acknowledged as a sad, tragic spectacle. But neither is every moment a jab or a joke about telling a gigantic lie and the best scenes depict with sincerity and strength the attempt to reconcile one’s damaged life in a perfectly balanced note.

Movie Review: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

PetesDragonPosterWith movies such as Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur and the harmonious hit Zootopia, Disney demonstrates that taking risks pays off with imaginative themes, scripts and storytelling. This summer’s animated/live action picture Pete’s Dragon, directed and co-written by the relatively new director David Lowery, is another good, wholesome family movie with warmth, intelligence and imagination. The reboot of a 1977 Disney movie with Shelley Winters, Helen Reddy and Mickey Rooney of the same name debuts in theaters on August 12.

Pete’s Dragon is not without flaws, risks and odd moments. A character played by Wes Bentley (The Hunger Games, Lovelace) is underdeveloped. An old wood carver played by Robert Redford (An Unfinished Life, Captain America 2) is underdeployed. Bryce Dallas Howard (Hereafter, Terminator Salvation, Spider-Man 3) as the Redford character’s forest ranger daughter is more natural than usual but still overacts. Family relationships are unclear. The setting’s place and timeframe are also a problem. But the gentle blend of fantasy with realism allows Pete’s Dragon to be quiet, still and breathtaking. The picture, shot in New Zealand, is produced by Jim Whitaker (The Finest Hours).

In one of those classic Disney twists, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is left alone and parentless in the deep woods following a tragic car crash, rendering the whole story sort of a reverse Bambi except that it’s the beast, not man, that’s in the forest (notice how a deer figures into the plot, too). Pete is a young boy when this happens, equipped only with abiding love, an ability to read a story, his father’s sense of adventure and affirmation from his mother of his bravery as a virtue.

Aren’t these all a boy needs to be prepared to live?

Of course not, but they’re a good start, especially for an adventure story of a boy and his dragon and, lest you think Disney’s attempting to cash in on DreamWorks’ Dragon movie success, this one’s entirely different. Casting credit goes to Debra Zane who thankfully has an eye for casting un-precocious kids such as Fegley as the lost boy and the local girl, Natalie (Oona Laurence), who discovers Pete’s primitive existence.

Natalie’s dad (Bentley) owns a lumber mill, her uncle (Karl Urban, Bones in Star Trek Beyond) is a greedy lumberjack who hunts and Howard’s forest ranger, who lives with Natalie’s dad, predictably tilts left on ecology. If it sounds like an environmentalist cliche waiting to get tree-spiked, it isn’t. One of the nicest things about Pete’s Dragon is a more balanced approach (this it has in common with Zootopia) to politics, though Urban’s character borders on caricature.

Another nice thing is the girl’s relationship to the boy. See it and judge for yourself. It’s plain and simple. The two kids climb trees. They get hurt, angry, sullen and competitive and they have fun and keep secrets from adults. How refreshing. In that sense, Lowery and company keep the movie in a mid-1970s spirit, complete with acoustic guitar-driven tunes, classic cars and station wagons and a leisurely pace. Pete’s Dragon evokes Seventies’ solitude in nature works such as My Side of the Mountain and Jeremiah Johnson.

There’s not much to say about the 24-foot dragon, a green-haired, big-jawed snaggletooth Pete names Elliot for a dog in his favorite children’s book. Elliot feels ripped from the Seventies, too, as he’s a mild-mannered, innocent like the kid and the two romp, snuggle and take flight like a boy and his big dog. But there’s more to Elliot than being just another animated figure. His instincts are evident in his eyes. He senses danger. He has an ability to make himself invisible and he’s curious like Pete, too. That his heart beats loud enough when he’s filled with confused, raging desire to connect with his friend Pete sort of sneaks up on the audience. By all outward appearance, Elliot, beautifully animated in his gestures, eyes and flaring, breathing nostrils, loves his friend and his life.

When both are endangered, Pete’s Dragon gets worked up and twists with surprise and conjures the best boys’ friendship movies, from Disney’s Old Yeller and So Dear to My Heart to Steven Spielberg’s ET. It’s almost of that caliber at times, though it’s too imprecise in time, relationships and location and, lacking a defined timeframe, it’s impossible to block out one’s knowledge of global positioning technology and drones. Themes of loss and what makes a family are tenderly depicted. With mountain woods mythology and the sense of a real friend whose majesty can lift you up and take you away from everything wrong with the world—if only for a time—Pete’s Dragon earns and generates emotional power; moreover, it does this with an ending which deposits a boyhood lesson that the best things in life are earned, kept private and ought not to be shared. This subversive idea is in the title if you think about it—Elliot belongs by mutual consent to Pete—and it plays across this magical, intimate movie with a childlike sense of abandon.

Movie Review: Indignation

Opening with the sound of a slowly pulled bow on tightly bound strings, writer and director James Schamus’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2008 novel, Indignation, is a lush, solemn and thoughtful, if not entirely convincing, movie. This is the first feature motion picture directed by Schamus, a Midwesterner and Hollywood studio executive, producer and writer whose work is evident in other serious films such as The Ice Storm, Milk and Brokeback Mountain, all of which are somber, subtle and moving and highly recommended.

IndignationPosterThough Indignation is slightly less successful than those pictures, it is also subtle, dark and thought-provoking. Newark, New Jersey, native Marcus (Logan Lerman) is the film’s focus and he narrates in short voiceovers, adding mystery to this already mysterious tale of a Jewish atheist attending a Christian college in the Midwest. One layer after another, beginning with the vague, nebulous, forgotten Korean War, gently falls over the plot, which takes place mostly at night, on campus, giving the whole 1951-based movie its look and feel of the Fifties in dark shadows.

Repression is everywhere, of course, especially here in an educational institution which, like today’s stifling leftist “safe spaces”, is ruled by tradition, faith and dogma. Marcus, like every other student, must attend religious services. When he finds his assigned dormitory mates similarly smothering—and this butcher’s son already feels smothered by his kosher, neurotic parents—he requests a new housing situation and gets sent to the dean’s office, where he is horrified to discover that the academic, like most modern education intellectuals, holds that the purpose of Marcus’s education is to learn to “get along with others”.

This is only one of several conflicts and, with Marcus as the individualistic freethinker, engaging, relating and sympathizing with this young innocent is natural. As he rises to the title’s state of irritation with unjust authority, former baseball and debate team captain Marcus finds release, romance and possibly more with wounded classmate Olivia (Sarah Gadon), an attractive and intelligent student who proves herself to be at least his equal in both damage and ability. Their relationship casts a spell of its own with certain consequences and it affords Indignation a beautiful framework which will stir the emotions of every lonely idealist. Schamus grasps this in Roth’s themes in the best way since Robert Benton masterfully adapted The Human Stain in 2003.

“Practice tact,” Olivia tells Marcus in a line which foreshadows the thematically pivotal plot twist to come. The youth marked by everyone from his mother (outstanding Linda Emond in a career best performance) to the dean (Tracy Letts) as smart, clever and promising must learn for himself the cost of choosing to become indignant at the unjust state of the world. Indignation doesn’t fill in every gap, and it falls short of fulfilling a potentially poignant counterpoint to the old hackneyed line about the atheist in the foxhole. But it is a rare depiction of what happens when a young man of the mind in mid-century, Midwestern America makes crucial choices that make all the difference.

Movie Review: Star Trek Beyond

The new Star Trek movie, Star Trek Beyond, is fine as light summer entertainment. The series’ leading characters, three white males named Spock, Bones and Kirk, are both true to their original incarnations in the 1966 television drama created by Gene Roddenberry and boldly against Hollywood’s new purge of white males. This is the boldest thing about the new picture, which is written by six different writers, directed by Justin Lin (Annapolis and some Fast & Furious movies) and produced by the man who directed the first film in this batch of movies, the overrated J.J. Abrams, who brought forth the bland 2009 reboot.

StarTrekBeyondPosterI think this is a better movie than that first installment, which was campy and full of itself. The second movie was a snoozefest, so I didn’t bother to write a review but I remember thinking that Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain was the best thing about it. Here, the production design is marvelous, and it is especially well done in rendering the villain’s (Idis Elba) world, which includes a kind of slave encampment.

But success as fun, lighter summer fare means that the boldness of the whole series is gone. The NBC show, which I found in reruns, was serious and dramatic. Something important, occasionally an ideal, was often at stake. Some were better than others, but subsequent series and movies recycled mostly the multiculturalism, comedy and nostalgia. Now, in 2016, Paramount’s Star Trek Beyond delivers more of the same, though it’s more linear. An outstanding actress is wasted in a cameo role (that’s Shohreh Aghdashloo) and the lines are flat, cringe-inducing or worse while the chemistry among the three leads, which was always a sideline at best to the dramatic arc, is the highlight. A self-reliant new character, Jaylah, is a welcome addition in a decent subplot.

Star Trek Beyond mixes plot fragments involving torture, surveillance and loyalty. Yet there’s nothing bold about how they’re treated. With another all-powerful villain named Krall drawing strength from suffering, the madman bit is getting old, and his contest with Captain Kirk (Chris Pine, Into the Woods) feels tacked on because it is. The basic conflict is underdeveloped.

Plot and action move briskly, however, in three different directions, as the U.S.S. Enterprise and crew spin off into separate orbits as Krall amasses the power to destroy an entire idyllic civilization and threaten the Federation.

So much could have been done with Krall’s inferiority complex leading to a barbaric siege against civilization. But no. Amid breakaways, imprisoned or eviscerated crew and tests of character, loyalty and teamwork, the Federation, utopia and the Enterprise are diminished by the end. The crew are smaller as the franchise ages. No longer the intrepid seekers of knowledge in space, these characters—and I’m sorry to say that the late Anton Yelchin in his final appearance as Chekov deserved a better send-off—convey none of the enthusiasm for enlistment that the original cast did. Zoe Saldana plays Lieutenant Uhura as tougher yet she’s less thoughtful and more stereotypical than was Nichelle Nichols in the role. Familiar characters return. There’s a nod to the late Leonard Nimoy. Sulu (John Cho) is, it turns out, a gay dad which plays neatly if predictably into the plot.

In short, Star Trek Beyond is mildly enjoyable at the expense of deeper engagement. Like its muted lighting, which looks the same in every atmosphere, Star Trek‘s whole universe feels artificial. The series, in playing to today’s demand for momentary thrills, jabs and jokes, is selling out its core value premise: excitement about discovering, exploring and mastering the unknown with a united band of enterprising men and women. A movie based on Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek vision should be bold. This one is not.